No announcements precede it, no paper notices on downtown posts and billboards, no mentions or advertisements in local newspapers. It is simply there, when yesterday it was not.The book opens thus, with the unannounced arrival of the circus. You enter the world as an astonished outsider, as part of the crowd anticipating its new role as audience, but you leave the story in quite a different way, more aware, more alive, a part of the circus: knowing that you have a role in keeping it alive.
The towering tents are striped in white and black, no golds and crimsons to be seen. No color at all, save for the neighboring trees and the grass of the surrounding ﬁelds. Black- and-white stripes on grey sky; countless tents of varying shapes and sizes, with an elaborate wrought-iron fence encasing them in a colorless world. Even what little ground is visible from outside is black or white, painted or powdered, or treated with some other circus trick.
This circus is open only at night.
ʻWhat kind of circus is only open at night?ʼ people ask. No one has a proper answer, yet as dusk approaches there is a substantial crowd of spectators gathering outside the gates.
You are amongst them, of course. Your curiosity got the better of you, as curiosity is wont to do.
It is Le Cirque des Reves, the Dream Circus, the Circus of Dreams.
Part of the story is an argument between two men about whether magic has to come naturally to someone, or whether it is a talent that can be taught. I will say only that this argument is made in the way arguments usually are, with a careless bluntness and disregard for “collateral damage.” The magic of the tale is in the fact that magic is something that can shred both sides of an argument and heal those wounded by the arguers; it is in the fact that magic is both a natural talent and something you, and I, can, through focus, learn to wield ourselves. We do it every day.
I have written often on this site about perspective, about how our beliefs shape what we see and block other things from our view. There have been mountains of experiments to explain this phenomenon that makes it impossible to rely on witness testimony, difficult to rely on our own memory, and uncertain about what we can truly claim to be reality. But what none of these experiments seem to focus on (please correct me if you know otherwise) is the best part: you donʼt have to live in a wretched world where the nightly news gives you heartburn and your interactions with others are tinged with distrust and fear. After all, you’re actively creating that world as you go along.
Tonight, the circus could arrive. You might notice people performing who are doing something you previously thought impossible. You might make some sort of decision in your own life based on that moment of surprise. You might feel that you are entering a dream,
You might, lucidly, decide to alter your surroundings, and your relationship with them.
In a dream, the monster chases you, and you are never fast enough. You turn and scream, “why?” as he rips you to shreds, and somewhere in the middle, you wake up, sweating and exhausted, and later you return to the same dream. This repetition means something. The meaning is not: Just like when Iʼm awake, when Iʼm dreaming, things go to hell. The dream is simply a short story encapsulating your beliefs. Once you know youʼre dreaming, without waking up, you decide that you would prefer a different relationship with this monster, you turn around, you invite it for tea. The next morning you wake up and go about your business, and that night, the circus arrives.
The next step, the step that takes focus, is realizing that you are always dreaming. Alter your surroundings slightly and change your relationship with them. The whole world will change accordingly. There are many world beliefs based on this. At the top of the blog, we have the famous quote from Remedios Varo about the placement of a pot of green paint and a pattern for making vests. There is Feng Shui, the art of arranging the items in your house in order to invite certain energies in. We have the placement of candles and images of saints, paired with patterns of word and rhythm, to request the intercession of particular powers in our affairs. We have habit.
Habit grinds certain neuro-chemical pathways into the folds of your brain; it creates patterns. Those patterns inhabit your motions; they inhabit your emotions; they control not just how you interpret what you see, but what you see. Ritual is an attempt at reversal of a particular harmful pattern. Ritual is a magical inﬂuence on the world around you. It has tangible effects.
ʻCelia,ʼ” he says without looking up at her, ʻwhy do we wind our watch?ʼ
ʻBecause everything requires energy,ʼ she recites obediently, eyes still focused on her hand. ʻWe must put effort and energy into anything we wish to change.ʼ
I would posit that the seeming lack of magic in the world is simply a matter of laziness.
An unwillingness to focus, to put that effort and energy into what we wish to change. Not necessarily a particularly negative form of laziness; often it’s only a lack of clear desires and goals. In many of the scientific experiments designed to test for the existence of ESP, the person tested looks at playing card after playing card, trying to guess the next one. Scientists have noted that performance decreases over time. There is a theory being posited, which makes sense to me, that these clean lab-tests, while the only method acceptable for “proving” the existence of something to a doubting public, are also the worst way to test for that existence: the knowledge sought is not anything the person being tested actually cares about. Who can focus in such a situation? What’s the next card? What difference does it make? Even if you’re “trying,” the core of your focus just can’t put itself in such an unimportant place. What goes through your head as you sit through one of those tests? Probably “what’s for dinner?” Borges once stated that the problem with scientific tests is that nothing in life occurs like a lab experiment; there are endless interactions in reality, all of which alter the impact of a particular (interactive) part. In this case, removing all subjective importance in the testing process also removes the impetus for focus, which removes the likelihood of any extra-sensory perception taking place. We’ve all heard stories of super-human strength in a person at the time of an emergency—mothers who can lift cars off of their children, that sort of thing. Lifting the car for the hell of it is another item entirely, and hugely unlikely.
As Kafka says in the quote above, “The nonexistent is that which we have not sufficiently desired.”
This story, The Night Circus, is almost a how-to. It is not just full of beautiful language, intense imagery,
and a spellbinding tale. It leads you from spectator to performer; it reminds you of your own abilities.
The reader gets brief descriptions of the circus from Friedrick Thiessen, a writer that is so enthralled with the circus that his writings about it in the papers gather a following whose members come to be called “Reveurs;” dreamers. They enter the black and white circus also dressed in black and white, with one scarlet addition, so as to not presume themselves on the same level as the performers. They follow the circus; they bring it deep into their own lives, and in their day long before overnight deliveries and well, well, before the internet, they forge lasting relationships across the world.
A few chapters in, you are drawn forward, from outsider to spectator:
Beyond the ticket booth the only way forward is through a heavy striped curtain. One by one each person passes through it, vanishing from sight.When it is your turn, you pull back the fabric and step forward, only to be engulfed by darkness as the curtain closes again.After the above quote, in which you, from the audience, enter the circus, your eyes are closed by the darkness and given time to slowly adjust to some other way of seeing (which becomes stars lining a twisted hallway, through which you feel your way until you are set back out in the light, which is now blinding in its seeming intensity...), a new chapter opens in which we meet Bailey. Bailey is a young boy who discovers the circus as we do, with its unannounced arrival in his town. He goes; he is enthralled. But during the day, his irritating older sister dares him to enter the gates during the day.
He takes the dare.
And even though it seems that nothing much happens, something is begun. He goes back to his home, back to the regular family problems and overwhelming decisions of coming into adulthood, but something has changed. He has begun a process. It takes him a while. It takes him as long as it takes us, in fact; it takes him the length of the story. Iʼll come back to him.
We receive our pieces of the story from three sources: we watch the magicians Celia and Marco grow
into adulthood and begin their work in the circus, their story driving the stories of everyone else in the book--the whole world, in fact. We read the descriptions of Thiessen and join his fellow Reveurs in their astonishment which draws them inside to be more than mere spectators, though not exactly performers. And we watch Bailey grow from his position outside the gates, like us, move inside the gates, and become a force from within the Circus of Dreams itself. The book is magic, its story enthralling; the book is a guide.
PART TWO: ILLUMINATION
There is so much that glows in the circus, from ﬂames to lanterns to stars. I haveA complex illusion of illumination. Like a holograph, creating a three-dimensional world out of light and air: this is what our brain does, by the way--it formulates some visual representation of a series of informational signals, and it convinces the rest of our senses of the details of that representation. If you donʼt like the style of your holograph- maker, create a new model. Put the spotlight on different parts of the stage, close your
heard the expression ʻtrick of the lightʼ applied to sights within Le Cirque des Reves so
frequently that I sometimes suspect the entirety of the circus is itself a complex illusion
of illumination. --Friedrick Thiessen, 1894
eyes and inhale the scent of something else, focus your mind until you can feel a particular material, a ﬂower petal, the skin of another, the texture of warm beach sand. Maybe youʼll open your eyes on the same ofﬁce you closed your eyes in, but something will have changed. Underneath. Baileyʼs story is there to show us how.
On this evening, Mme. Padva wears a dress of black silk, hand embroidered withDo not think you must be born a magician, like Celia, or tutored from childhood, like Marco. Do not even think you must be a regal and aging theater personality, like Mademoiselle Padva. You, the anxious one from the back of the class, the one who wanders through life, shufﬂed from one position to another by “higher forces,” the one who doesnʼt see how you can have any impact on your own existence--or at least no more than it takes to keep your head barely above water--this is the call youʼve been waiting for. Get up. Focus on the thing that matters, but focus on it internally. I think the confusion about magic is, weʼre all trying to bend the spoon in front of us. As the small, wise child in the Matrix says, there is no spoon. You choose something fantastic, something that exists only in your own head. You focus on it, you develop it--
intricate patterns of cherry blossoms, something like a kimono reincarnated as a gown.
Her silver hair is piled atop her head and held in place with a small jeweled black cage.
A choker of perfectly cut scarlet rubies circles her neck, putting forth a vague impression
of her throat having been slit. The overall effect is slightly morbid and incredibly elegant.
Mr. Ethan W. Barris is an engineer and architect of some renown, and the second of the
guests to arrive. He looks as though he has wandered into the wrong building and
would be more at home in an ofﬁce or a bank with his timid manner and silver
spectacles, his hair carefully combed to disguise the fact that it is beginning to thin...
A small example, this is difﬁcult--
Say you want to build a clock. That is your mental project. Why a clock? Why not? It is an image, an object that resonates with you. You are drawn in by the perfection of its pieces, by its rhythm, by the regular glimmer of the swinging pendulum, by the grace of the woodwork and the futuristic (even after all this time) aspect of its works. Gears that all come together to make a small dance, perhaps even with a special show at the turning of the hour, a small door opening, someone coming out for a dance or a song. Itʼs magical enough as it is. And it marks something so oddly unreal and yet so enormously controlling. Focus. You are creating something. Whatever you create matters. Where your focus is matters.
A man from the circus approaches Herr Thiessen the clockmaker asking him to create das Meisterwerk.
Money is no object. The only constraints are that it must be only in shades of grey from black to white, and that it must be Dreamlike. Her Thiessen, it must be emphasized, is a clock-maker. Not a magician. Not even, thus far, afﬁliated with a circus.
Herr Thiessen, loving details and loving challenge, puts his all into the project.
The ﬁnished clock is resplendent. At ﬁrst glance it is simply a clock, a rather large black
clock with a white face and a silver pendulum. Well crafted, obviously, with intricately
carved woodwork edges and a perfectly painted face, but just a clock.
But that is before it is wound. Before it begins to tick, the pendulum swinging steadily
and evenly. Then, then it becomes something else.
The changes are slow. First, the color changes in the face, shifts from white to grey, and
then there are clouds that ﬂoat across it, disappearing when they reach the opposite
Meanwhile, bits of the body of the clock expand and contract, like pieces of a puzzle. As
though the clock is falling apart, slowly and gracefully.
All of this takes hours.
The face of the clock becomes a darker grey, and then black, with twinkling stars where
the numbers had been previously. The body of the clock, which has been methodically
turning itself inside out and expanding, is now entirely subtle shades of white and grey.
And it is not just pieces, it is ﬁgures and objects, perfectly carved ﬂowers and planets
and tiny books with actual paper pages that turn. There is a silver dragon that curls
around part of the now visible clockwork, a tiny princess in a carved tower who paces in
distress, awaiting an absent prince. Teapots that pour into teacups and miniscule curls
of steam that rise from them as the seconds tick. Wrapped presents open. Small cats
chase small dogs. An entire game of chess is played.
At the center, where a cuckoo bird would live in a more traditional timepiece, is the
juggler. Dressed in harlequin style with a grey mask, he juggles shiny silver balls that
correspond to each hour. As the clock chimes, another ball joins the rest until at
midnight he juggles twelve balls in a complex pattern.
After midnight the clock begins once more to fold in upon itself. The face lightens and
the clouds return. The number of juggled balls decreases until the juggler himself
vanishes. By noon it is a clock again, and no longer a dream.
Sounds impossible? Here for your amazement is an actual clock, designed by Abū al-'Iz Ibn Ismā'īl ibn al-Razāz al-Jazarī in the 1200s:
[The intricate action is described thus on wikipedia:
"The timing mechanism is based on a water-filled bucket hidden inside the elephant. In the bucket is a deep bowl floating in the water, but with a small hole in the centre. The bowl takes half an hour to fill through this hole. In the process of sinking, the bowl pulls a string attached to a see-saw mechanism in the tower on top of the elephant. This releases a ball that drops into the mouth of a Serpent, causing the serpent to tip forward, which pulls the sunken bowl out of the water via strings. At the same time, a system of strings causes a figure in the tower to raise either the left or right hand and the mahout (elephant driver at the front) to hit a drum. This indicates a half or full hour. Next the snake tips back. The cycle then repeats, as long as balls remain in the upper reservoir to power the emptying of the bowl...Another innovative feature of the clock was how it recorded the passage of temporal hours, which meant that the rate of flow had to be changed daily to match the uneven length of days throughout the year."]
No detail is too unimportant to receive your attention. You are sitting at your desk, which is a mess—a mess of items you have to deal with, which you would like to put off. Arrange it: put something to the right which represents things you would like drawn to you. Put something to the left which represents moments in which you have felt strongest and most able. Put something in the drawer that smells good, and smell it often. Put an unﬁnished piece of something which matters to you there also, and during idle moments or irritating moments, let your gaze ﬂoat over to it, let your mind wonder how you might work on it next.
Bailey does something like this. He works on the family farm, and it is not his dream job. He spends a lot of time in the tree he has loved climbing since he was a child, the same tree he was sitting in (though on a branch below his sister) when she dared him to enter the circus after hours, often wishing he was a princess some knight would come and spirit away, even grumbling to himself about the absolute unfairness of the fact that all fairy tales only give such an opportunity to girls.
He tells himself that it is not a bad life. That there is nothing wrong with being a farmer.
But still, the discontent remains. Even the ground beneath his feet feels unsatisfying to his boots.
So he continues to escape to his tree.
To make the tree his own, he even goes so far as to move the old wooden box in which he keeps his most valued possessions from its standard hiding spot beneath a loose floorboard under his bed to a nook in the oak tree, a substantial indentation that is not quite a hole but secure enough to serve the purpose.
The box is fairly small, with tarnished brass hinges and clasps. It is wrapped in a scrap of burlap that does a fairly good job of keeping it protected from the elements, and it sits securely enough that it has not been dislodged by even the most resourceful squirrels.
Its contents include a chipped arrowhead he found in a field when he was five. A stone with a hole straight through it that is supposedly lucky. A black feather. A shiny rock that his mother said was some sort of quartz. A coin that was his first never-spent pocket money. The brown leather collar that belonged to the family dog who died when Bailey was nine. A solitary white glove that has gone rather grey from a combination of age and being kept in a small box with rocks [note: this glove was given to him when he snuck into the circus].
And several yellowed and folded pages filled with handwritten text.
After the circus departed, he wrote down every detail he could remember about it so it would not fade in his memory. The chocolate-covered popcorn. The tent full of people on raised circular platforms, performing tricks with bright white fire. The magical, transforming clock that sat across from the ticket booth, doing so much more than simply telling the time.
While he catalogued each element of the circus in shaky handwriting, he could not manage to record his encounter with the red-haired girl. He never told anyone about her. He looked for her at the circus during his two subsequent visits during proper nighttime hours, but he had not been able to find her.
Then the circus was gone, vanished as suddenly as it had appeared, like a fleeting dream.
First of all, there is an action. He feels unsatisfied with the ground, so he climbs above it. He wants to leave the house he lives in—this is as specific as his desire gets—and so he moves his box of treasures from underneath the bed (the safe, the most inside room of the house, really), to the top of the tree, which stretches towards the sky. Up and out—that’s a good start, at least. Another action is the writing he does. He records every detail. Why? So he can call it up again. He can recreate the circus in his mind; he can smell it, see it; there are visual symbols to take him back, and there is the glove—a tactile proof of some other world, some other place, some other possibility. Also, there is a secret. All magic has a secret. The secret is his meeting with the girl.
’Secrets have power,’ Widget begins. ‘And that power diminishes when they are shared, so they are best kept and kept well. Sharing secrets, real secrets, important ones, with even one other person, will change them. Writing them down is worse, because who can tell how many eyes might see them inscribed on paper, no matter how careful you might be with it…
This is, in part, why there is less magic in the world today. Magic is secret and secrets are magic, after all, and years upon years of teaching and sharing magic and worse. Writing it down in fancy books that get all dusty with age has lessened it, removed its power bit by bit…’
But there’s another way that could go: a secret gets passed to you, and you make it your own. You learn a technique, add your secret sauce, and voila: new magic.
Clock by Eric Freitas
Clock by Eric Freitas
(“Growing relentlessly in the mind of Eric Freitas lies a realm of dark mechanical curiosities and horological contradictions. In this world gears are harvested and mechanisms are alive with the organic repetitions of nature's machine. Balancing carefully between creative conception and logical execution, this world would slowly be brought to life. In 2004 Eric began to study the dying craft of clockmaking so that his ideas could be executed, and it would become apparent that even an instrument as logical and precise as a clock could be compromised by ungoverned subconscious thought.”—from his website)
There is much that goes on in this novel, and I haven’t even touched on the masterfully written story of a great love between two magicians, Celia and Marco. I have not described a single tent in the immense maze of mysterious circus tents, a single flavor of the amazing dinner-parties thrown by the circus proprietor. Or the way that Bailey comes in to his own. Read this book.
Note: The magnificence of clockworks extended into the creation of automata that did not “bother” with marking time. Tiny humans played chess; music boxes opened to reveal dancers inside. The wondrous possibilities of gears extended to the stage and expanded in scope via magicians. Below is one of the more famous magic pieces performed by Robert Houdin, who was a pioneer of such automata use. (The Night Circus does not go in this direction, but the story of the circus clock leads me there in my own twisted mind .) It was called “The Marvelous Orange Tree" and in the movie “The Illusionist,” Edward Norton performs a variation of it. If you can get through the theatrics of the first 2 or 3 minutes, you will reach the performance of the orange tree, which is truly amazing. I don’t want to know how it works… After all, does it matter? He paid attention to the details, and he created magic.